I’m fascinated by the different ways European settlers saw Australian landscapes, animals and plants as they encountered them for the first time.

Early artists, unless trained as scientific illustrators, seemed to view the world through a filter coloured by experience, rather than with fresh eyes. They often produced wonderfully distorted naïve renditions rooted in the old country – eucalypts like beeches and cat-like wombats. It didn’t help either that they often worked from stuffed specimens or skins, or simply copied other people’s drawings.

Blue Groper illustration
A watercolour from the exhibtion Artist colony: drawing Sydney's nature at the State Library of NSW. "The blue colour with brownish sides suggest a fish that has almost completed its change of sex into a terminal-phase male." Mark McGrouther, Fish Collection Manager Image: defuser
© State Library of NSW

There are plenty of examples of such charming artwork on show in Artist Colony: drawing Sydney’s nature . The exhibition shows 100 natural history paintings from the earliest days of the colony, mainly by amateurs – unidentified convicts, guards, sailors and officials. These first known European paintings of Australian animals and plants are still bright, vibrant and colourful, thanks to being locked away for countless years in private libraries.

Most of the plants and birds on display are named, but not so the 32 fishes. I couldn’t resist asking Mark McGrouther, Fish Collection Manager at the Australian Museum, whether he could identify them. He kindly agreed to give it a go and after a day or two, and some help from Technical Officer Amanda Hay, came back with handwritten notes.

Positive IDs were limited by the accuracy of the illustrations, some of which Mark described as ‘fanciful’, but they tentatively spotted a King Gar, Rainbow Cale, Blue Groper, Silver Toadfish and Sergeant Baker. Others could only be placed into families, such as the goatfishes (Mullidae) with their distinctive mouth barbels. Some resembled wrasses or salmon, while a few were completely unknown. ‘In many of the images, a fair amount of artistic licence seems to have been taken’, he said.

Scientists use size, shape, colour and pattern in identifying fish specimens, but also count the number of fin rays, scales and other such details. ‘In particular, the rendition of the dorsal [back] fins in these paintings often have incised membranes,’ Mark said, ‘which I suspect in most cases shows what the artist thought looked good rather than the actual structure of the fin.’ With 586 species of fishes recorded in the Museum’s Sydney Harbour fish database, such details are crucial.

Despite any scientific limitations, the fish paintings have enormous cultural value and form an interesting and wonderful selection from the TAL & Dai-ichi Life Derby collection of 745 drawings and watercolours. We’ve now sent Mark and Amanda’s comments about the unidentified fishes to the State Library to have on file.

The Artist Colony exhibition closes soon, but you can find the entire collection online or buy the book Natural Curiosity: unseen art of the First Fleet by exhibition curator Louise Anemaat.